r e m i n i s c e n c e

g r e t c h e n   m c c u l l o u g h 


We live in stories. What we are is stories.
 We do things because of what is called character,
and our character is formed by the stories we learn to live in.

—William Kittredge


t has almost been two years since I left Syria. Eight months since I wrote my beau, Karim the last letter: love, yes, but not happily ever after. Six months since Hafez el-Assad died, not from a plot but heart failure. A few days since I received an e-mail from an American friend, Karen, who still lives in Damascus. When I lived in Lattakia, I waited for weeks, like a forlorn 19th Century traveler, for the occasional red-and-blue striped air mail envelopes from home. However, Bashar Assad knows that world is round: mail falls off the universe, but e-mail, sent at the speed of light, does not.

But now I am in Cairo, and I wonder. At the American University in Cairo, where I teach, my Syrian stories must seem so Draconian that they are unreal. An Assad put his servant in a cage in his own front yard; an Assad incinerated a Secret Policeman with a grenade; Assad’s bodyguard kidnapped a proctor in the middle of an exam at Tishreen University; Assad bodyguards hijacked a Datsun truck and forced the driver to drive to Kerdaha with flowers for Hafez Assad’s dead sister. Whispered news, kalam in-nas, the talk of the people in Lattakia, Syria. These stories reminded me of Don Corleone and the Family. What was reported on state-run television: problems in Israel and Lebanon, hurricanes in Florida, mudslides, famines in Africa – disaster elsewhere. Still, I was safer physically on the streets of Lattakia than in urban areas in the United States. Bad behavior from the Assad clan, but no street crime in Syria. However, the surface ease of daily life in Syria was deceptive. With time, I became worn down by the fear, suspicion, and paranoia, like the Syrians I knew. But I could easily leave Syria.


Syrian memories collide with cheerful, noisy Cairo, where I live now. I am a little surprised by my conversations with expatriates: “Syria, that sounds interesting.” Yes, but it was hard, I always say. They never grasp a world ruled by rumor, dark jokes, gloom, isolation, and a feeling of helplessness. Even specific examples are not enough to make them understand the atmosphere: no Internet – no mail at all for sometimes five weeks; no books; the heavy breathing of my landlord on the phone; the suspicion of being a CIA agent; the presence of the Muhabarat, the Secret Police.

I am nostalgic, though, for leisurely conversations on balconies with my British-educated Syrian colleagues, who switched comfortably between Arabic and English. The nights were cool, and we cracked pistachios or ate nutty hummus and drank the local beer, Sharq, aptly named East. I admired their resilience and tenacious wit. One colleague told a joke like this: “The CIA, KGB, and the Muhbarat decided to have a contest. Who could find a cock the fastest? The CIA came back in two hours. The KGB came back in two days. Time passed, and still the Muhabarat had not come back with a cock. Four days later, they were found beating a pale, thin rabbit, ‘Say you’re a cock. Say you’re a cock. Say you’re a cock.’” We laughed. The joke underscored a serious fact of life in Syria: people are afraid of the Secret Police.

Many Syrians are cautious about making jokes about the government, but they do it among trusted friends. I have also heard Syrians make sly jokes about the “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost”: Hafez, Bashar, and Basil, the Assads, father and sons. The political iconography in Syria is overpowering. Photographs of the trinity covered the windows of grocery stores, the hallways at Tishreen University, or even windshields in minibuses: single pictures of the father, looking like a benevolent patriarch; or single pictures of the father in military fatigues; the father with his son, Basil; Basil, alone on his horse; masculine Basil clad in fatigues and a beret; pious Basil in robe on the Haj at Mecca; Basil again in military uniform, in an unguarded moment, looking dazed in front of his father; the rare photo of the father, with Basil and Bashar. Such pious images made me feel as if I knew the Assads. Now that Bashar has become President I’m sure there are more photographs of him, covering the walls of buildings, offices, and grocery stores.

Frustrated by the lack of opportunity and low salaries, many of my Syrian colleagues have gone elsewhere. They are intelligent, ambitious, driven; they want more than Syria has to offer them. I imagine they are skeptical about how fast Bashar will make changes in Syria. Karim has left to teach at a remote university in Saudi Arabia; Kemal and Aziz are working at private universities in Jordan. And lest I long too much to return, I have heard that some lectures are being held out on the grass in front of the University because there is no space in the Faculty of Arts building. Teaching composition to my class of two hundred in drafty lecture halls had not been easy, but the students were eager, curious, and respectful, and teaching was a joy, despite the difficult conditions.

Besides dark jokes, Syrians relish dark stories. When I first went to Syria, the Princess of Wales had just been killed in the automobile accident in Paris. On the first day of class, my students at Tishreen University buzzed with this news. I looked over the lecture hall; students were crammed together at long, wooden slabs for desks. The lecture hall was depressing and had an unfinished look: tangled wires hung from the ceiling; a rickety podium teetered on a platform in front of the chalkboard; a tattered eraser and a few nubs of chalk had been left at the board; and the spare walls were covered with replicas of the same Hafez al-Assad photograph. Still, the students were excited. Since I had an outdated Composition text and no real plan for the lesson, I asked, “What do you think about Lady Diana’s accident?” The class roared. Hands waved in the air.

A young woman from the crowd spoke clearly, “She was murdered, Doctoor.”

“Murdered?” I repeated.

“Murdered,” they said.

The room was remarkably silent for an Arab crowd. I felt like a celebrity myself. I smiled, and they smiled back. “But why?”

The same young woman said, “The Queen killed her.”

I smiled. “But I think it was a drunk-driving accident.”

The class roared. “No,” they said, shaking their heads.

Someone shouted, “It was a conspiracy.”

Was I the innocent abroad?

“I think this might be a good chance for you to write a paragraph. So I can see what your writing is like.”

A young man raised his hand. “But Doctoor, we don’t write in the lectures.”

“But I’m asking you to,” I said.

After I had collected all two hundred or so paragraphs (I wondered how long it would take me to read them), a student stayed behind. She said, “We never had a Composition Professor like you before. We usually take the notes about the Comparison/Contrast, the Argumentative…”

I was feeling better already.

Most of the paragraphs repeated the same story, which had been written up in the Arabic newspapers: Lady Diana had been murdered because she was carrying Dodi’s child. The Queen of England could not bear a Muslim becoming heir to the throne. On the night she was killed, Dodi had given her an enormous ring and proposed marriage. Except for the day of her marriage to Prince Charles, it had been the happiest moment of her life.

Maybe the class was really Creative Writing, not Composition. Such a tale reflected the storytelling tradition of The Arabian Nights. It was as if, like Dinarzad, I had said to my class, “Sister, if you are not sleepy, tell us one of your lovely little tales to while away the night.” And my class, like Shaharazad, had said, “With pleasure, Doctoor.” Maybe the Arab storytelling tradition, coupled with the bleakness of Syria, made stories even wilder, and more marvelous.

Karim also believed the tale about Lady Diana. He said, “Her bodyguard was with the British Intelligence. No air bags. Or why didn’t they inflate?”

“Maybe it was just an accident. Anyway, I’m sure there would have been easier ways to kill her. Poison. But why?” I said, shrugging.

The tale about Lady Diana also reminded me of Snow White. The evil queen had tried to kill the beautiful princess by lacing her stays too tightly. Next she had used a poisoned comb. When that failed, the evil queen had disguised herself as a peasant woman and given Snow White the poisoned apple.

Poison was an old-fashioned way of murdering people. I thought of the Sultan’s taster in the Topkapi Saray sampling succulent roast lamb until the day he choked and burbled, unable to utter a single last word. But were fear and paranoia more poisonous than arsenic? Though there was no evidence of a conspiracy in Lady Diana’s accident, the Syrians I knew insisted on a plot. Freak car accidents were not just freak car accidents. Perhaps the vagaries of power in Syria have made Syrians sensitive to larger hands behind the scenes that, like a giant puppeteer, pulled the strings and controlled events. Since the Assads controlled most everything in Syria, the Queen of England must control events in England. And the United States must control all events in the world.

The air bags had not inflated on Basil Assad’s car, either. The favored son, the son groomed to be President, had been killed in a high-speed car accident, except that he had been driving the Mercedes as it roared down a road in Damascus, late one foggy night. The car had careened off the road into an electrical pole that lay alongside the verge. The heavy pole had sliced through the car, and then the car had flipped into a field. (That was the story I was told.)

As in Lady Diana’s accident, there had been rumors of a plot. Had someone tampered with the air bags or the brakes? Basil Assad’s cousin, also riding in the car, survived. Had someone…?

Here is what I heard about Basil Assad:

“Someone could have murdered him. He had lots of enemies in Lattakia. A few years ago, he cleaned up the place. Before that, whenever his relatives wanted to, they stole people’s cars, or demanded money from shopkeepers. Girls were kidnapped and raped by some of Assad’s relatives. Who could the victims report to?”

“Lattakia was a separate kingdom from Damascus. Some of Assad’s relatives in Lattakia did whatever they wanted.”

“The common people loved him. He tried to help people.”

“He drove too fast. That was one of his bad habits. I remember once, this car went by too fast in Lattakia. My friend said, ‘That was Basil.’ Driving fast, that was a kind of suicide.”

“The day after Basil died, there was a pilgrimage to Kerdaha. All the students were told they would have to go. It’s about thirty-five kilometers. They met at the University at five o’clock in the morning. They walked there in the rain. One poor boy caught a chill and fever, he died. They call him a martyr, a shaheed.”

Hearing the stories about Basil Assad made me curious to see his shrine. Understandably, Karim was reluctant, but agreed to go with me. He was worried about being blacklisted by the Muhabarat.

“You’re American,” he reminded me.

I knew he was right. A simple visit to Kerdaha could be transformed into a nasty rumor such as, the American Fulbright Professor went to Kerdaha to collect “info” for the CIA; or, perhaps, a more marvelous story would be invented.

The only thing I did collect were marvelous arcane details. For example, to the right of the entrance to the shrine, on the white wall of a nearby house, are two bright, folk-y murals. One is of bearded, brown-eyed Basil, riding a white horse. Next to him appears the face of his brother, Bashar, with his astonishing blue eyes. Bashar’s face is not in proportion to the painting of Basil on his horse. Even more puzzling, is the plastic toy-like model of Basil on his horse that I see on the balcony. This cannot be part of the official shrine.

Before Karim and I entered, a bored soldier took down our names. After we signed our names to the list, he sat down again on his chair.

In front of us, a concrete mosque was still under construction, one big dome with smaller domes. The building was drab and grandiose, and reminded me of the buildings at Tishreen University. It was as if, the engineer had become bored and lost interest.

A small sculpture had been erected in front of the unfinished mosque. Like the murals, the sculpture is curious. Slender white metal curve toward the blue sky. A yellow star crowns the top. On the sloped curve, President Assad, surrounded by imams and other VIPs, waves goodbye to his son. Further up on the sculpture, Basil on his white horse rides toward heaven.

“Gretchen,” Karim said, gesturing with eyes toward the mosque. He put his finger to his lips as a warning: don’t speak.

He held out his hand, and we trudged through the mud to the mosque, where Basil’s coffin lay.

As we approached the entrance, a man appeared, and unlocked the door. He motioned for us to enter the small room.

Salaam Alekum,” Karim said.

Alekum salam,” the man answered.

To the left of the door was another picture of Basil, a large black-and-white framed photograph anchored in a pot of sand.

The guard followed us inside. Karim walked around the coffin but said nothing. Green cloth was draped over the coffin; green curtains smothered the walls. (Green is the color of the Prophet Muhammad and signifies peace in Islam.) An amateurish pencil sketch hung from the billowy green curtain but not a good one – Basil’s brown eyes were dull. Beside the coffin on a small table was a large gold trophy and some ribbons Basil had won for horseracing. The mementos were personal, in contrast to the enormous mosque.

As soon as we left the small room, another man appeared with thimbles of bitter coffee. (It is Arab custom to drink bitter coffee at a funeral.)

In front of us were several large platforms and bleachers. Enough places for a military band, dignitaries, and retinues of government people. On the platform, was a metal triangle. Tiny horse candles had been hung on the metal triangle.

“Those are strange,” I said.

“Enough. Finish your coffee and let’s get out of here,” Karim said. He pulled on my arm. “Don’t seem too interested. Everyone’s watching.”

Shokron,” I said, handing my cup back to the man who had given us the coffee.

We headed back to the entrance, where the guard had taken our names.

“Don’t look back,” Karim said, as we walked through the gate.

After a few minutes, he glanced over his shoulder. “I’ve heard about stories about the shrine. When Basil died, some of my brothers and sisters came on pilgrimages here,” he said.

I couldn’t blame him. The speculation that I was a CIA agent was not absurd. I had heard that the previous Fulbright Professor in Lattakia had been the subject of a CIA agent rumor. And, although the head of Security at the University, Tamer, had decided I was harmless, he was still convinced that my Arabic was much better than it was in fact. I had ambitions for my Arabic but did not speak it fluently. Did Tamer also worry about me because I was a writer?

In Syria, was my simple observation of daily life spying? One morning, I heard the voices of children, like sparrows outside my window, singing, “Bi rouh. Bi dam. Nefdek Hafez al-Assad” over and over again. We sacrifice our souls and blood for Hafez al-Assad.

Or was my listening to disgruntled Syrians subversive?

A sensitive student confided to me that her only true companion was her diary. “I keep it in English. To keep my privacy.”

The gossip and intrigue in Syria was wonderful for fiction, but became emotionally exhausting for me, especially if I were the subject. I spent a great deal of time unraveling rumors, deciphering motives, and judging people. Karim knew his way through the maze. When I had problems with my exit visa, Karim knew how to deal with Tamer. (Without a security clearance, I could not make a trip to Jordan, where I wanted to travel.) Karim had known him at secondary school, and called him up for an appointment at the Security office.

In Tamer’s office, I was so startled to see a golden bust of Hafez al-Assad without his nose that I knocked my tea over on the floor. Had someone been hauled in for lopping off the Father’s Nose? Or were they simply storing the bust without a nose, out of public view?

A servant quickly swept up the tiny shards of glass on the floor.

Tamer ordered another tea for me.

He was tall for a Syrian, with a healthy shock of brown hair, and a pleasant smile. Attractive. He wore a pilot’s flight jacket. But his brown eyes were feral.

Tahki Arabe?” he asked.

Aleel.” A little.

Fi intihabat fi Syria. Matha raik?” Tamer asked. What about the elections in Syria?

Men yarif?” I shrugged. Who knows?

Syria balad democratiya. Ahsan men America,” Tamer said. Syria is a democratic country. Better than the United States.

I smiled. Surely, he didn’t delude himself. Yet this was the same man who did not know that the Democratic Party was one of the major political parties in the United States. The year before, he had been alarmed when I marked on the security form that I was a member of the Democratic Party. “Did you have a high rank?” he had asked.

“She speaks Arabic very well,” Tamer said. But surely this was mujamala, courtesy. Karim agreed. And then because he was nervous, he made a joke, which I missed.

Narifik giddan,” Tamer said, turning his gaze towards me.

We know you well, he smiled. He knew that I was so cold at night I wore my warm-up suit to bed? That I had been asking my landlord, Yousef, for over a month to kill the giant sewer rat under my sink? That I was reading all of Henry James?

At last we left, and walked out of the garrison quietly. When I started to speak, Karim said, “Wait.” We walked in silence for a few minutes. Further down the road, he said, “He will probably ask me to pass students later.”

I wonder how many students Karim had passed in exchange for my security clearance and exit visa.

A few months later, Tamer was driving in the city center in his Mercedes, and he motioned to us, “Get in. I will take you home. Kef kum?”

He joked and laughed with Karim. “You should call me. You never call me. People never call me unless they need something.”

I was opening the outside gate to my house. “He’s lonely,” I said.

Karim said, “We can never be friends.”

One of my friendships with a lonely woman professor ended because of a wild, marvelous story. Initially we became friendly because we were co-teaching American Literature together; she would present The Scarlet Letter; I would discuss For Whom the Bell Tolls. Odd curriculum for a Survey of American Literature, but these were the novels that were approved. I thought The Scarlet Letter, with its Puritan background and theology and old-fashioned, anachronistic diction, a particularly bad choice for Syrian students so I volunteered to teach Hemingway. Magda was happy because she preferred The Scarlet Letter. “I can relate to Hester’s isolation. It’s the same for Arab women,” she said. Soon, she was calling me for dinners and lunches, and taking me for rides in her father’s truck; we cruised around Lattakia, like teenagers. “Driving gives me such a feeling of freedom.”

Many of the single women Syrian professors I had met, lived with their parents. Magda was unhappy with the situation. This I could understand. A woman in her thirties who had studied in England, she felt confined. She had tried emigrating to Australia, but had only scraped by, living in a bedsit, and had not found university work.

“I could have done translation work for the Australian government, but it’s not what I wanted. I wanted to be a lecturer at the University so I refused,” she said.

“But that would have been good. You would have used your skills,” I said.

“I didn’t do a PhD in Literature to do translation work,” she replied.

“Nothing shameful about translation work. It would have been a good job. You could have supported yourself.”

She frowned. This was not the response she wanted.

Her parents had persuaded her to return to Syria. Now she had only her room with a view of the Mediterranean, which her brother wanted. With her salary, she felt she couldn’t afford to rent a flat by herself.

“You see, it’s not only that. It’s not respectable for a woman to live by herself. People will talk. Say I’m loose.”

“I know some single Syrian women who live by themselves,” I said.

Being friends with her became more complicated. She told me more and more about her problems. Her parents quarreled. There were scenes at home. She was her father’s favorite. Her mother was arranging suitors for her, whom she did not want. She fought with her two spoiled brothers, who were both unemployed. Her brother had a girlfriend, whom he wanted to marry, but he had no flat: he wanted her room with a view. I had recommended her for a USIS fellowship, since she was teaching American Literature; she had told her parents that I was going to help her find a job in the United States.

“But Magda, that’s not true. I can’t even find a job myself in the U.S. How could I find one for you? I’ve only recommended you for a two-week scholarship in the summer, sponsored by USIS.”

She withdrew her application for the fellowship, and wrote a letter to the American Cultural Attaché saying that she didn’t want to be thought of as a spy.

Shortly after, when we were driving around Lattakia in her father’s truck, she blurted out, “My mother is telling her friends that you are a CIA agent.”

“You have got to be kidding. Why?” I asked.

Next, Magda called with this cryptic message, “Gretchen, we can no longer be friends. We are just colleagues.”

My other Syrian friends said, “Forget about it. She’s crazy. Paranoid. That’s ridiculous. Of course, you’re not a CIA agent.”

Did the paranoia come from the suspicion? Or was Magda already a little crazy to begin with? Or could you be driven mad by all the wild, marvelous stories? Did you eventually give up trying to disentangle rumors, and believe untrue stories because it was easier?

Four or five months later, Magda called me, desperate, to tell me a story. She had been harassed by some American Black Muslims; they had made all sorts of sweet promises to publish her poems and set her up in an artist’s colony in the United States. Could she come tell me the story and show me the faxes? The American Embassy should be notified. The American police should be notified.

I stalled about calling the Cultural Attaché. She was busy.

I didn’t really want to see Magda, because I was still a little hurt about the CIA-agent accusation. But she was insistent.

“Where did you meet these people?” I asked, looking over the faxes.

“Here in Lattakia,” she said. “I was having ice cream with Mona, my friend who owns the bookshop. I asked them if they knew you since you were a writer.”

“There are a lot of writers in the U.S. Anyway, I’m not well-known,” I said.

“My father even met them. They seemed legitimate. Something should be done. They can’t just around harassing women. You should notify the police in the United States.”

“Did they rob you? Did they harm you?” I asked.

“No. But something has to be done. They might try to harass someone else,” Magda said.

“Right. When was the last time you heard from them?” I asked.

“A year and a half ago. You saw the fax. Something has to be done. Why don’t you call the Embassy?” Magda insisted.

“They look like frauds. But what am I going to say? The U.S. is a big place. Which police? And what have they done?” I asked.

“The U.S. Embassy should be told. So that women are not harassed by such people.”

“Are you willing to write a letter? Make a formal complaint?” I asked.

“I don’t want to get involved. I don’t want to write anything down,” she said.

“So what can I do? We don’t know where these guys are now, or if they are using false names or not. If you want to make a complaint, you should write a letter to the Embassy. I am sorry. I don’t think they were sincere about publishing your poems. And as far as making the promises about the artists’ colony, well…,” I said.

“They just wanted me to be their love slave. When I refused, they started sending the abusive faxes,” she said.

“What about Mona?”

“She was the friend who introduced me to them. We’re no longer friends,” she said.

“How did she know them?”

Magda shrugged. “You are going to call the Embassy?”

“Yes,” I said, gloomily. As I showed Magda out, I realized that we were no longer friends, either. And what would I tell the Cultural Attaché? That there had been a sighting of the Duke and the Dauphin in Lattakia? Frauds who had skipped town, but with no treasure? What were those characters doing in Syria?

When I finally got through to Damascus, I said to the Attaché, Leesa, “I’m sorry to bother you. But there’s a story you should know about.”

Leesa was glad to have been informed about the bizarre story when the Ambassador received a letter from Magda. But why now? Why had Magda waited a year and a half to complain?

I did not have the energy to unravel Magda’s psychological motives. But this much was true: American Black Muslims had found this vulnerable woman in Lattakia. She had no friends in her family; her friend, Mona, had introduced her to these frauds; she had no friends at the University; I was no longer her friend. She was alone. Without friendship, there were only the wild, dark stories of betrayal, treachery, plots, conspiracies.

Shortly before leaving Syria, I went with Karim to see a friend of his who worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“Clearly, the Monica Lewinski scandal is an Israeli plot,” Ali said.

He looked at me. I was tempted to say, “I think it was just sex.” But why argue? He’d made up his mind: the Monica Lewinski scandal was really The Spy Who Loved Me. I had learned that in Syria conspiracy was a convention in most stories and anecdotes. That was the script.


©Gretchen McCullough



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